Who will blink first..?

ON Talkback, Mark Devenport reckoned we could have a ‘mini-crisis’ on our hands. By that, it means that Sinn Fein may not nominate Martin McGuinness on Thursday as the brinkmanship continues. At that point, there would be seven days to get things back on track. Mark adds on his blog: If that time expires, we could then be looking at a fresh election. Under the old rules that would have kicked in six weeks after the dissolution of the Assembly. But since the St Andrews Act the date of a fresh election is left at the Secretary of State’s discretion. I don’t think there’s much appetite for an election, so hopefully the talks that seem to be happening in the background will bear fruit. Or Woodward could put them off until things get resolved. Or Paisley could just delay his resignation. If you get the chance, Malachi O’Doherty’s analysis is well worth listening to, while Martina Purdy looks at the pros and cons for Sinn Fein here.
O’Doherty’s thoughts included the fact that Sinn Fein going for the ‘nuclear option’ – as SF used to call it when Trimble threatened to pull the plug on the Stormont show – could work against the party. An Irish language act is signifcant to a core in SF, and devolution of policing and justice is crucial – but are they more important to the many new SF voters than ongoing stability? How would Gerry ‘doing a Trimble’ play with those who voted for Sinn Fein to keep political decision-making local and not dictated from Westminster?

Also in play is the vote for 42-day detention for terrorist suspects. If Brown suspects he may need to buy DUP votes, would he risk alienating them by taking Sinn Fein’s side? The unedifying sight of Sinn Fein appealing to the new British Prime Minister might not have been worth the pain this time if Gordon has paid Gerry short shrift. Adams’ silence suggests he’s not happy. Brown will probably want to worry about Northern Ireland next week, after his crucial vote, and may pass the buck to Woodward. We’ll see soon enough, but I wonder if there’s anyone in SF counting the number of Labour rebels and thinking treacherous thoughts about how wonderful it would be to go through the Commons lobby and give Brown a bloody nose that would really grab his attention!

While SF’s power not to nominate a Deputy First Minister is seen as sabre-rattling by some, Martina Purdy has taken a slightly different tack and looked at possible advantages to the party if an early election is called. (O’Doherty points out that despite how it’s being argued that the DUP don’t want an election because of the TUV, they could counter the threat by being able to argue that they hadn’t been pushed around by SF. The new DUP director of elections – Jeffrey Donaldson – might relish the opportunity to prove himself in such circumstances.)

Purdy writes:

An election certainly does not suit the DUP just now, particularly in light of the Dromore by-election when it lost a chunk of its base to the Traditional Unionist Voice, enabling the Ulster Unionist Party to win the seat.

If the Dromore by-election result was replicated across Northern Ireland, one thing is certain: the DUP would not be sitting on 36 seats.

The fact is the DUP is a little too powerful for Sinn Fein’s tastes right now.

Might Sinn Fein see some advantage in the Traditional Unionist Voice splitting unionism?

Might it get its feet under the table of the first minister’s office if the unionist vote splits and the SDLP falls further behind?

Does Sinn Fein see the Traditional Unionist Voice as being at its most potent now – or in three years time?

An early election may suit Sinn Fein.

Does Sinn Fein for example want to be going to the polls in 2011 with the SDLP shouting about what it has called “the (Conor) Murphy tax” – that is household water bills?

Does it want to be going to the polls to be judged on education reform’s outcome which could include compromise?

Or would it rather go to the polls now staunchly defending its plan to phase out selection?

Does Sinn Fein want to wait for Fianna Fail’s army to come marching onto its patch – with or without the SDLP’s help?

Might it be better to go to the polls now before either the SDLP regroup or Fianna Fail invades?

Does Sinn Fein want to to go the polls in three years with the DUP having vetoed some key demands?

Or does it want to go to the polls now beating its chest and promising to give Peter Robinson and the DUP the “proverbial bloody nose”?

Of course there are risks involved in playing this game.

Geoge W Bush might cancel his trip to Stormont.

That is more likely to annoy the DUP than the republicans. In fact their grassroots will probably cheer.

Sinn Fein has conceded some of its holy grails to achieve power-sharing and north-south cooperation.

And forcing a crisis could put this in danger and delay power-sharing for years to come with the prospect of a dangerous vacuum opening up.

On the other hand, it reopens negotiations. Does Sinn Fein think it can do better? Is it addicted to negotiatiing?

Whatever the truth, the question for Sinn Fein is – does it have more to gain or more to lose?

If nothing else, this question must surely be concentrating minds in the DUP leadership.

And even if it is all a bluff and Sinn Fein ends up nominating, it may have taught the DUP a valuable lesson: there are consequences for saying No.